It is a relationship that is best described in the context of a crisis that is not always an emergency.
“The teacher is like the fire alarm going off,” said Johanna Jones, a counselor at Carlisle High School. “They are not putting out the fire. They are just pulling the alarm.”
School districts across Pennsylvania have structures and protocols in place where most every staff member has a role in seeing to the mental health and well-being of students.
Day-to-day contact and hours of interaction make teachers the best equipped employees to notice the warning signs of a troubled youth, Jones said. Their role is to forward observations and concerns to a school administrator or counselor.
The counselor is equivalent to a professional who conducts triage – screening cases as they come in to decide on an order of priority and the best way to make a referral, according to her.
Sometimes the flow of information works in reverse.“I may put out an email making teachers aware of what may be going on for a student while keeping it confidential,” Jones said. “I don’t need to go into details on the background. ‘So-and-so is going through a rough patch right now ... Be aware of any changes that may be happening.’ Sometimes all the teacher needs is a heads-up.”
Challenges to coverage
Like anything else, there are limits. Though trained in cognitive therapy, Jones is not a therapist. Her role does not involve working with a student every week for an extended period of time on a mental health issue.
There are 250 students on her caseload and her job duties are split between providing them triage services of mental health issues and guidance in college and career selection.
“We used to have an intervention counselor at the high school,” Jones said. That position went away when the person left and the Carlisle Area School District decided not to fill the vacancy.
“It is attrition – the most common situation in the state,” said Michael Perrott, current president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association.
All too often, when a counselor leaves due to retirement or resignation, the vacant position stays open and the remaining staff has to adjust to meet the demand.
The result has been a drop in counselor positions statewide at a time when there is an increase in the number of mental health diagnoses, Perrott said. The resulting uptick in the need for services places an added burden on all school employees.
“It forces you to be reactionary instead of preventative,” he added, noting how there is no state mandate calling for a counselor-to-student ratio. There are some districts in Pennsylvania that don’t have counselors in their elementary schools.
That is unfortunate because issues that surface at a younger age can carry over and become deep seated in middle school and high school, Perrott said. “At an older age, the students are harder to deal with and to work with.”
Meanwhile, the job of teacher has changed to where the home-life issues of students are coming into school and affecting the ability of instructors to work through the curriculum.
“The students have changed, and we need to change with the times,” said Joel Hain, principal of Boiling Springs High School. “In my mind, teaching is still one of the most, if not the most, important professions out there.”
Before becoming an administrator a decade ago, Hain taught social studies for nine years at secondary schools in Maryland and the Red Lion School District in York County.
“Teachers are dealing with stuff now that teachers a generation ago did not have to deal with,” Hain said. “School leaders need to understand and recognize that. We all have more work on our plates today than we did five years ago. We are doing more with this.”
More and more lately, school counselors are being asked to take on non-counselor duties, Perrott said. “We end up as the default in charge of lunch duty, tracking attendance, clerical things and sorting and packaging tests.”
There are pressures tied to parental expectations as families expect teachers and counselors to instruct their children on citizenship and proper character building.
“The state requires us to teach them math, social studies and English,” Jones said. “It is your job to teach them how to be a good person and make good decisions.”
Like most district, Carlisle has in place an employee assistance program that helps teachers and other staff members cope with the stress associated with the job.
Much of the counselor-teacher discussion is focused on caring for students and the delivery of instruction, not the personal life of teachers. “I’ve had teachers come to me and say ‘I’m not handling this well ... How do I handle this better?” Jones said.
She added programs are offered to teachers and staff on time management and stress reduction, along with techniques they can use to improve overall efficiency to reduce any workload going home.
“When they are home, we want them to be relaxing and enjoying time with their family,” Jones said. “I’m able to shut the door, go home, have my own life and my own family ... to recharge and rejuvenate myself.” Otherwise, she said she is no good to anyone as a school counselor.
Concerns relayed to Jones are often referred to the Student Assistance Team that gathers information and makes recommendations on the next steps families can take to help their teen. One option is to refer the teen to an outside service that provides counseling.
Cumberland Valley School District has a partnership with Laurel Life where the district provides space for the teen to meet with a therapist during school hours, said Doris Baboian, director of student services.
This arrangement eliminates the obstacle of transporting the student off-campus, which would require the youth to miss a large chunk of instructional time.
Cumberland Valley has representatives come in from a variety of counseling services including Diakon Family Life Services, Gaudenzia Addiction Treatment & Recovery and the Cumberland-Perry Drug and Alcohol Commission, Baboian said.
She added the school district also employs a social worker tasked with networking with county agencies, one-on-one case management and the coordination of small therapy groups.
Building level counselors tend to keep track of issues that emerge among students and have constructed small group sessions around such topics of grief counseling and peer relations, Baboian said.